Alex’s Top 10 Games of 2013
I completed over 75 games and got hands on with over 105 total that were released in 2013. Narrowing that gargantuan list down to a mere 10 seems silly, but that is how the convention goes. 2013 has been a little weird, and I have been trying to nail down exactly why. Typically, at least in years past, I am willing to defend my top 10 tooth and nail with conviction and confidence in my choices. This year, however, I was left with my “Solid 7” and exactly 16 other games that I would be completely satisfied with having in my top 10 games of 2013. Needless to say, it was a strong year, certainly better than 2012. So it is either there were not enough games to really grab me this year, or too many to easily choose from. It is probably a little of both. Well, anyway here it goes. The following are my Top 10 experiences of 2013.
10. Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Honestly, I didn’t see this coming myself. I am a very strange person. I attempt to rank my top 50 games of the year as early as the end of first quarter every week in order to track my opinion of games over time. When going back over the data, Splinter Cell: Blacklist fell out of my top 10 in October and has not made it back until this present list. There is a more extreme example of this coming up later, but I was hoping to reveal why this was a surprise to me in the first place.
What it comes down to is that Blacklist had less that I didn’t like about it than other top 10 contenders. A fairly convincing argument I know, but hey, I told you it was a weird year. I have enjoyed every Splinter Cell game; Splinter Cell: Conviction was even my number 11 in 2010. The stealth-action hybrid that Blacklist brings to the table is as engaging as it was in Conviction, but brings back the unforgiving nature of the earlier games. This difficulty boost made for a very engaging experience. The games as a whole felt like a large production and that Ubi is putting some deserved faith in their best stealth franchise. It might want to be Mass Effect at times with the conversation camera angles and the upgradeable ship. Again, there was very little that I didn’t like about Splinter Cell: Blacklist. It simply is another entry in a franchise that I greatly enjoy, and apparently that is all it takes to make my top 10 this year.
9. Tomb Raider
I thought I was going insane earlier this year. First, I enjoyed a Gears of War game. Second, I essentially enjoyed an Uncharted game. This might make a little more sense with a little context. I hate third-person cover-based shooters. I mean hate them. I consider the Uncharted games to the most overrated games of the generation. The mechanic of waiting for little enemies heads to pop up is basically just whack-a-mole with guns minus the excitement. Waiting as a gameplay mechanic is not fun or engaging. Period. That goes for the Thwomps in any Mario game, and waiting for NPCs to catch up in The Last of Us or Call of Duty in order to proceed with the game. Gross. I hate it.
So, what does any of this have to do with Tomb Raider? I consider Tomb Raider to be the best Uncharted game that I have played. It might not have as memorable of characters, but at least it was intensely fun to play. It also innovates in the cover mechanic department. Lara gently hides behind cover and is never glued to one spot patiently waiting for melon shaped targets to enter her field of view. She can move freely and more dynamically making each combat encounter infinitely more fun that those of Gears and Mr. Drake’s misadventures. She could not elude the lame third-person linear platforming that plagues Uncharted and Enslaved, but no one can be perfect I suppose.
Perhaps Tomb Raider’s greatest victory and most compelling element was its setting of the setting. Aside from maybe Metro: Last Light (which barely missed making this list), it was Tomb Raider that presented the world that I felt most immersed in this year. I got lost in the island, well, not lost as in not knowing where to go due to the generally wonderful environmental design, but sunk in and absorbing everything the game world had to offer. I was invested in the atmosphere. I was enjoying the combat. The story was okay. I certainly enjoyed my time with Tomb Raider much more than I had anticipated, and it is definitely one of the best games of 2013.
8. State of Decay
What!? Even after having completing the game, I never expected this game to make my top 10 of the year. In fact, this is the first time this year State of Decay has finished in my top 10. It was only due to deep concentration and thinking about what it is that I value in games that brought State of Decay to the forefront of my mind again.
I had a terrible first impression of State of Decay. I played the Xbox 360 demo and was woefully unimpressed. Technically, the game was nightmare. The pop-in is ridiculous, the voice-acting is below average, and gameplay seemed underdeveloped and worse, uninteresting. Talk about a game that does not demo well! The demo does not allow for the player to fully appreciate what it is that State of Decay brings to the table. In looking over the 16 games vying for my last three spots, massive open world games like Assassin’s Creed IV and Grand Theft Auto V did not offer enough that was new, interesting, and entertaining, whereas State of Decay was oozing original ideas in spades. That is when it hit me that my time with State of Decay was more enjoyable than either of those two mega triple A games. State of Decay also did not have missions where I had to literally mop the floor, operate a crane, or follow two people talking fifty times. Again, this is sort of a case of me finding more wrong in games like Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin’s Creed IV than in State of Decay, but SoD can certainly stand on its own merits. Its base/community management simulation is nothing short of inspired and is excellently executed in implementation. State of Decay is a mechanics heavy experience. Characters control slowly and deliberately, until they level up their respective skills. This made losing my two best characters within an hour of each other exceptionally painful. Having to start back at level 1 with other characters was a welcomed challenge, however. The game was never too difficult and despite the absence of my leveled-up super-humans, I managed to the complete the game and immediately start it over again. Thinking of where I will make my base this time, and maybe I’ll try to complete some of the interesting side quest lines I was unable to finish in my initial run. State of Decay offers unique mechanics in a tired atmosphere at the end of console cycle, and deserves to be commended for its successes, not ignored for its technical shortcomings.
7. Shin Megami Tensei IV
I do not think that I can say or type the name of this game without making an audible “YUM” or “MMHMM” sound. I really like SMTIV. I have my problems with SMTIV, and those are only narrative based, due to being compared to the other games in the continually growing Shin Megami Tensei extended universe. I can easily say that my review for SMTIV is the one that I put the most work and effort into in order to convey why this game is masterful in its refinements of the SMT JRPG formula. Shin Megami Tensei IV does so much right. All of the changes the game makes enhances the experience for veterans and makes it more accessible to those not as familiar with the universe. That by no means equates with this being an easy game. It is assuredly not as demanding as its big brother Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, but it is no slouch in the difficulty department. Some would argue that the game needed a subtitle like III did (Nocturne), and I largely agree. Why Shin Megami Tensei IV resonates with me so hard is the satisfaction that the gameplay delivers. The constant leveling and fusing of demons means things never get old and something is constantly changing. The App system allows for such a level of customization that the game then possesses a huge amount of replayability to boot (for more reasons than the multiple endings). I could go on and on about this one (and I do in my review), but I’ll cut myself a little short here and end with discussing The Passage of Ethics.
The player is in an unfamiliar environment that is hostile territory about two thirds of the way through the game and falls into a trap. This trap door leads to perhaps the best moments of the game. A voice comes over the monitor of the person you were sent to kill, and the person begins to bombard the player character with moral dilemmas. The player answers by walking left or right. These questions and the scenario as a whole play right into the thematic elements present in the game. An example is as follows: “You are the chief of a village that lived the same way for 1,000 years. One day, a man visits your village, carrying with him revolutionary technology. This technology would greatly ease your people’s lives, but would also do away with their current lifestyle. What would you do?” Go right, in order to preserve tradition and stability. Go left, to embrace the technology. The player’s party members comment on each question and they make a case for each choice. It is a fun and self-reflective process that more games should embrace. Mmmmmmm… meaningful choices in videogames, delicious.
6. The Last of Us
Well, I can’t believe I now have to say something positive about a Naughty Dog game. I suppose now would be the time to also mention that Jak II is pretty good. I started it earlier this year and look forward to getting back to that strange game that appears to be worlds better than its predecessor. Enough of delaying the inevitable, The Last of Us is a fine game; one that I greatly enjoy, in fact. It feels like a response to their Uncharted games. Uncharted is a colorful Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider rip starring a happy-go-lucky mass murderer, and The Last of Us is a raw and brutal tale of a much smaller scale, but it comes across as much more personal and heartfelt… more real. It is this incredible sense of sincerity that makes The Last of Us so hard not to like and be impressed by. Its characters are authentic, their motives murky and unclear, and their experience is crushing and is one of the most genuine the medium has to offer. I ran into a lot of technical issues with The Last of Us, but none of them matter when compared to the experience as a whole. Go play this brilliant, dark masterpiece.
5. Bioshock Infinite
As popular as it is to hate on Bioshock Infinite since a week after its release, I liked Bioshock Infinite and still do. I played through it twice. Yeah, that triple ghost-boss mom thing was not the best sequence, but at least there was some good narrative back-story and reveals during the 60+ minute section of the game. And that is what Bioshock Infinite is all about: its world and its story. Sure, most multiverse theories and stories fall apart under a magnifying glass, but the one presented within Bioshock Infinite was engrossing, entertaining, and engaging. The romp through a racist Disneyworld is exhilarating with some new gameplay mechanics including the Skyline, which is essentially a personal roller coaster for the denizens of Columbia. The core gameplay itself, though hardly innovative (outside of the tears and skylines) is more than good enough, and is still defining when compared to most other FPSs. In short, Bioshock Infinite is among the best examples of what a story driven FPS should look like.
4. Pikmin 3
Pikmin 3 is the game that I gave the highest score during 2013 (9.3). It is probably the closest thing to perfection that I experienced this year. There is nearly nothing that I would change about it. My biggest gripe is that there was not enough of it, clocking in around 9 hours; my time with Pikmin 3 went by all too quickly. It was a delightful and amazing 9 hours though. The advancement of having three playable characters at once added a great deal to the possibilities that emerge from Nintendo’s only real-time strategy game. The WiiU GamePad makes up for where many console RTSs fail with simple touch controls and an accessible map in order to best utilized one’s time and gather the most fruit. The boss fights were fun and exciting, the two new types of Pikmin added a lot to the potentialities in gameplay and enemy designs, and the game is just beautiful to behold both visually and experientially. Pikmin 3 is a wonderful game that kept me delighted and engaged throughout its entirety, and for me, it does not get much better than that.
3. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
What I said at Game of the Half Year still stands: “If gameplay or fun factor were all that mattered in games, then my Game of the Year will definitely be Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.” The most visceral, engaging, and absolutely captivating game I played this year was provided courtesy of Platinum Games. It is just the game is so short. So, so, very short. I gave it a second run-through on Hard and have been meaning to go through it again on Very Hard, perhaps some time in 2014. The “Blade-Mode” mechanic is similar to Bayonetta’s “Witch Time,” but the player can then cut the enemy into literally hundreds if not thousands of pieces. The brutal gameplay (MGR:R is likely the most violent game I have played) is further enhanced and accentuated by the game’s killer soundtrack. As a fan of harder rock music, MGR:R’s music is some of my favorite of the year. The story is unsurprisingly ludicrous when looking at other Platinum and Metal Gear games, it almost seems like a match made in heaven. Two crazy forces colliding and providing one of the deepest political critiques to come from a game in some time, if not ever is surprising, however. The writing is solid enough, and certainly insane. Revengeance probably has the worst narrative in a Metal Gear game, but the worst story for a Metal Gear game is still better than most other game stories. It was enough to win our “Game of the Half Year” award in “Best Story/Writing.” When putting this all together it becomes quite impressive: insanely fun combat, some of the best music of the year, and some of the best writing/story of the year. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is an extraordinary testament to what Platinum can do in so little time. Here’s to hoping they get another shot at the new sub-series.
2. Pokemon X/Y
I love Pokemon. I always have since I popped in Blue Version in a friend’s Gameboy those many years ago. In keeping in the theme of “2013, what a weird year for games,” I might go as far to say that Pokemon X/Y is the worst entry in the core franchise. It would be confident saying that it has the worst story and the worst music of the six generations. It has the least number of new Pokemon, the stuff with the friends (all four of them) errs on the side of cheesiness, and only half the game is in 3D. All that being said, it is still Pokemon. The core gameplay and collect ‘em all itch still very much serve their purposes. The new Pokemon that were introduced were largely excellent and the new type is a game changer. So yeah, I’m saying that the worst entry in the core Pokemon series is my second favorite game of the year, weird, I know. Because I keep track of these things, Pokemon X/Y is the game that consumed more of my time than any other this year. I completed both X and Y, with different restraints on myself both times. First, I could only use new Pokemon. Second time through, I could not use any Pokemon given to me other than my original starter. Pokemon X/Y is a great game that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I was little let down after Black & White’s incredibly strong characters and narrative. It seems like Nintendo and Game Freak’s minimal gamble on appealing to “lapsed” Pokemon fans has paid off. It is hard to know what they will do next in order to keep them hooked on their “catch ‘em” fever.
1. Fire Emblem: Awakening
As I write this I am halfway through my second playthrough of Fire Emblem: Awakening. I had to be sure. I am now confident that it is good enough to be my Game of the Year. I restarted it today and could not put it down. Fire Emblem: Awakening has so many good things going for it. My favorite segments being the conversations that emerge between characters that battle together making them stronger together in the future. The core strategy gameplay when played on “Classic,” demands absolute perfection. I recognize the frustration this may cause. I restarted my 3DS over 100 times on my first playthrough. The satisfaction that arises from that perfection is what makes the game, though.
Awakening has my favorite writing of the year. The conversations, as I previously stated, are my favorite part of the game and add much to the loss of each individual. Aside from mere statistical investment, the player becomes invested in the multitude of characters through understanding their quirks and their relational hijinks. The dating simulation side of this game is oddly captivating. Gaining new characters and first thing wondering who they would be best paired with for marriage is a strange feeling upon further reflection. Story in games has been becoming more and more important to me over time. Though Awakening’s story is not its strongest component, it has some great twists and turns along the way.
As good as Fire Emblem: Awakening’s story/writing is, ultimately, gameplay is king. Fire Emblem has always been a strong series when it comes to deep and rewarding mechanics, permadeath being core to that experience. Awakening is much more accessible and offers a casual mode. The presentation is streamlined and feedback loop on the gameplay is addicting. Numbers are flying up constantly and there is always a character close to leveling up urging the player to continue for “just one more round.” The sound design is terrific, and the critical hit sound always induces excitement. The level design is a little less varied than Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 1 & 2, but the act of trying to keep all one’s characters alive is more than enough to stress the player. It is the constant upgrading and visible improvements of the characters that make the game so addicting. When this is paired with the addicting nature of the marriage mechanics and the desire to see as many hilarious conversations as possible, you are left with a product dripping with drug-like potential. I could simply say: “Fire Emblem: Awakening is the game I had the most fun with, or most addicting, or best written, or has some of the best and most delightful music.” It excels in every area that a game should excel in and then some. Fire Emblem: Awakening is my favorite game of the year. It grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Even during second time through as I experienced today. What is good about FE:A? The one word answer would be: Everything.